‘Champion of the underdog’: Leon Litwack, UC Berkeley history professor emeritus, dies at 91

photo of Leon Litwack
Ann Litwack/Courtesy
Leon Litwack, who taught at UC Berkeley for 43 years, died Aug. 5 at the age of 91.

Despite being a historian, Leon Litwack, UC Berkeley professor emeritus in the department of history, was a man far ahead of his time.

“For decades, history belonged to Leon Litwack and now he belongs to history,” said Gary M. Pomerantz, Stanford University lecturer in the department of communication and a past student of Litwack.

Litwack died Aug. 5 at the age of 91, according to a campus press release from the department of history. His legacy consists of Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery” and his dedication to the upkeep of public libraries.

It also includes the nearly 30,000 students he taught during his 43-year tenure on campus, according to Pomerantz, who previously worked for The Daily Californian and currently serves as a board member.

After more than four decades of teaching at UC Berkeley, Litwack entered Wheeler Auditorium for his final lecture in 2007, the room overflowing. He appeared in his trademark leather jacket with “Fight the Power” by the Isley Brothers playing on the loudspeaker, Henry Weinstein, UC Irvine professor of law, recalled.

According to Ann Litwack, Leon Litwack’s daughter, his motto had always been to “fight the power.”

Described as a “champion of the underdog” by Dan McIntosh, Leon Litwack’s former student, Leon Litwack radicalized the teaching of the Reconstruction era and race relations in the United States through an introductory history course that he taught from 1964 to 2007.

“It was a more nuanced portrait that he was painting,” Pomerantz said. “It was rescuing the people out on the margins of American life and bringing them into the narrative.”

McIntosh noted that Leon Litwack’s lectures were frequently multimedia presentations, using music and photographs to enhance his teaching. Pomerantz described the visuals as “cutting edge” for the 1960s.

Leon Litwack’s determination to redefine the teaching of the Jim Crow era made him a pioneer in the study of African American history. He presented it as a fundamental and essential part of American history, according to Waldo Martin, campus professor of American history and citizenship.

“He had this profound insight into what we can learn from the struggle and the triumph of the tragedy of ordinary people,” Martin said. “He had a vision of social history from the bottom up rather than from the top down.”

In addition to his love for teaching, Leon Litwack was also known for his appreciation of books and public libraries. According to McIntosh, Leon Litwack’s interest in African American history originated from reading books written by W.E.B. du Bois in the Santa Barbara Public Library.

Encouraging his students to be curious in the same way he was, Leon Litwack’s legacy is one that profoundly touched many of his students and peers, according to McIntosh. His impact will be long felt and remembered.

“He was a remarkable man and faculty member in all respects,” McIntosh said. “He gave me new eyes, and that’s not something that just any teacher is capable of.”

Contact Kavya Gupta at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @kavyaguptta.